There are many wonderful things that don’t get the attention they deserve. Overshadowed by grander and more popular competition, these things sit mostly in the shadows. But like microbrews, third-party politicians, and those other two houses from Harry Potter, they still manage to gather a small but dedicated gathering of followers.
There’s no better example of this in the world of fishing than the small but scrappy white bass.
In a country dedicated to bass, these small members of the temperate bass family known as Moronidae (which includes striped bass, yellow bass, spotted sea bass, and white perch) seem to be mostly ignored by the fishing public. Yet the white bass is an aggressive, hard-fighting, and widely distributed species that can be found in lakes, rivers, and streams across the country,
Known as whiteys, sand bass, silver bass, and stripers, white bass are a small fish, with most specimens ranging from 12- to 18-inches long and weighing around 1 to 2 pounds, though some can grow to weigh more than 5 pounds. White bass are an open water fish that travel in large schools which hover along the bottom or rove suspended in the middle of the water column. They spend most of their time in deep water ranging between 10 and 25 feet. This may be why they seem so overlooked by anglers who are used to fishing the shallows and around structures in pursuit of more popular species like largemouth, crappie, perch, and bluegill.
However, white bass can provide anglers with some of their best days on the water. Unlike more popular species, whitey’s can be caught consistently throughout the year, providing fantastic fishing from the heat of summer to the dark of winter. They can also be caught on a variety of baits, lures, and even flies, providing anglers with a ton of different fishing options. Aside from being a hard-fighting fish on par with the more popular smallmouth, white bass are also delicious. They have light, flaky flesh, similar to walleye, and can be cooked in the same fashion. There are very few white bass aficionados out there though, which is surprising because the fish can be caught by anyone so long you know how and where to find them.
Since white bass are an open water schooling fish, your best bet for success throughout the year is chasing them from a boat. Using electronics, you can find white bass traveling in large Christmas-tree-shaped schools and target them according to where they’re feeding and traveling in the water column. However, shore anglers can still get into a lot of fish during certain times of the year. The prime white bass fishing spots vary throughout the year, so it’s important to understand where they’re gathering so you can target them all season long.
White bass are spring spawners. Like salmon and whiteys close cousins, the striped bass, the fish will move up into small tributaries off of the large lakes, rivers, and reservoirs during the spring to spawn once the water temps reach between 54 to 68 degrees. This is a great time for shore anglers to capitalize on the white bass’s mating habits, as the large schools can completely fill a small tributary. This makes it easy to find and catch the fish as they migrate and stack up, laying their eggs on gravel bars, shallow weed beds, and other underwater structures like logs and rocks. If the white bass water you’re fishing doesn’t have any tributaries, your best bet is to hunt the fish along shallow, windswept shorelines where they’ll also gather to spawn.
Summer white bass fishing can offer some of the most thrilling fishing action of the year, as it gives you a ton of options to use various techniques. During the post-spawn season of early summer when the fish are moving back into the main bodies of water they inhabit, they become voracious. Hunting in large packs, the fish begin to pursue schools of baitfish with a vengeance. They’ll target small shad, minnows, smelt, and other schooling baitfish species, pursuing their prey so vigorously that they’ll often drive them to the surface in a bait ball and then literally jump out of the water in their urgency to feed. This can make for some fantastically exciting fishing. Find these fish by hunting for them just above the thermoclines in deeper water, concentrating your efforts on depths of 14 to 28 feet. Later in summer, the fish will move into deeper water of 30 feet or even deeper and station up around large structures like boulder piles and underwater peaks, where the water is cool and they can find plenty of baitfish.
Fishing for white bass in the fall is a time for trophies. Fattened on a crop of summer baitfish, they’ll move into shallower water as the temperature drop, driving schools of baitfish before them like cattle dogs. These fall fish are fat and very aggressive, which is great because this is a time when the fish are more vulnerable, having moved to shallower water, where they will attack a variety of different lures. From jigs to spoons to crankbaits and jerkbaits almost anything will get inhaled by fall whiteys. Autumn bass will move into shallow water of 10 to 14 feet, or sometimes less, along hard rocky bottoms, usually off the ends of islands and rocky points. It’s a great time to fill up the livewell with some true slabs.
Winter white bassing can be a challenge. The fish tend to gather in large stationary schools along the bottom in deeper water of sometimes 30 feet or more and can be a challenge to get to bite. This is a time when electronics are almost essential for success as you’ll have to cover a lot of water in search of the lethargic schools, parking the boat over them and dropping lures and baits on top of their heads in order to be successful. On warmer winter days, you can still have some fantastic action.
While white bass are considered a panfish in most places, it’s not the best idea to go after them with panfish gear. The fish may be small, but they fight like lions, and trying to land one on an ultra-light or light-action rod with a light line can be like trying to lasso a steer with a wet piece of pasta. Instead, try fishing for white bass using the same gear you would for large and smallmouth bass, a medium action rod strung with a 6- to 10-pound braided line.
Fly anglers will want to chase whites with heavier gear as well. While many can manage with a 5wt trout rod, you’ll probably be better off using a 6 or even a 7wt rod so that you can both deal with the hard-fighting fish and still be able to accurately cast small flies long distances in the wind. Because white bass spend most of their time in deeper water, you’ll want to bring a full sink line that can get your flies down to the fish quickly. However, while the fish spend most of their time in deeper water, it’s not a bad idea to bring along a floating line as well. White bass fishing on top water with a fly rod can be some of the most exciting fishing on the planet.
You’ll want to have a variety of lures, baits, and flies along for the ride. White bass are big baitfish eaters so a bucket full of minnows should be a priority for bait anglers. However, the fish are also opportunistic and can get a bit picky on occasion, so you’ll want to remember to bring along the obligatory carton of worms as well.
Your best bets for lures and flies are patterns that are versatile and able to reach down and trigger the fish to feed no matter where they are hiding. Small spoons and spinners like the Cast Champ, the Roostertail, and the Beetle Spin are great options, but for bigger fish you’ll want to bring along a variety of small deep diving crankbaits like the Crème Ultralight, the Rattletrap, and the Square Bill. During summer when white bass are crashing on baitfish balls you can have a lot of luck with small topwater lures like the Cordell Crazy Shad and the Storm Cover Pop. When fishing is slower or the water is colder, small deep sinking jerkbaits like a 1- to 3-inch Countdown Rapala are a great option. Jigs like the Atomic Tube and the Crappie Thumper are also fantastic lures for these situations as well.
Fly anglers will want to bring a variety of small streamers. You’re classic conehead Wooley Bugger in white or black can be white bass slammers, and it’s hard to go wrong with a Clouser Minnow, Bunny Muddler, or a Flash and Grab. If you’re into some big water thrills, there are also a lot of great topwater flies for white bass, such as the Micro Popper, the Airhead, and the Crease Fly, which will be absolutely crushed when the fish are thumping bait on the surface.
During spring when the fish are spawning, shore anglers are going to have their best luck using live bait. The simplest way to fish is with a simple weighted bait rig, which will hold in place in tributary currents and on windy lake shores and allow the fish to run a few feet before the hookup. Start your setup by adding a small casting weight to your mainline and then tying on a barrel swivel. Add two to three feet of light 4- to 6-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon to the other end of the swivel and then tie on a size 8 to 4 bait hook. Bait the rig with a minnow rigged through the lips or a worm which should be strung halfway onto the hook, starting with the head (the fat part) and the hook point protruding just below the band. Cast the rig into the water, reel in the extra slack, and then wait for a strike.
Summer white bass fishing is a time for finding schools of fish and then putting the smack down on them with lures and flies. Use your electronics to locate a school of fish in shallow enough water to reach quickly. Once the white bass are within range, start casting your spoons, crankbaits, and spinners, into the school and bring your lure or fly back to the boat with a fast retrieve, varying the depth with each cast until it gets smashed.
When the bass are feeding on baitfish near the surface, the topwater action can be absolutely out of this world. Find these fish by searching the skies for diving birds like gulls or by literally looking for the fish splashing and leaping out of the water. Once you find a pod of feeding, crashing white bass, smack your topwater lures and flies down onto the school, retrieving it back to the boat or shore with sharp, rapid pops, making the lure look like a wounded baitfish.
Trolling is the absolute best and most consistent way to catch white bass during any time of the year when the fish are roving the main lake, reservoir, or river where they live. Use multiple rods fished at different depths, based on the time of year when the fish are most likely hanging. You can troll for white bass with crankbaits or spinners, but my favorite and most consistent producer has always been with a Lindy Rig baited with a nightcrawler or minnow. Pair the rig with a heavy bottom bouncer which will keep the trolling baits close to the bottom where the action of the rig and the bottom bouncer will draw in roving bass to strike.
Bass fishing is a religion in this country with over 30 million anglers hitting the water to chase the fish every single year. While these fish are by far the most popular gamefish in the US, the truth is that largemouth and smallmouth aren’t really bass. They’re actually a type of sunfish, more closely related to the bluegill and the crappie than any true bass species. So, while the folks who pursue them may call themselves bass fishermen, but they’re really just catching big predatory sunnies.
The white bass may be overlooked and set aside by most bass anglers, but the few anglers who chase these small but fierce fish are some of the only true bass fishermen in the country. It makes you think that maybe every now and then, we should give more credit to the overshadowed things in this world and see what they’re really made of.
Feature image via Walker Jeske.